Ask the Experts: Marathon Nutrition with Ruth McKean

Catch the highlights from Friday's lunchtime debate, when ASICS Target 26.2 dietitian Ruth McKean answered your questions about marathon nutrition live in the forums



ruth mckean nutrition

A member of the British Dietetic Association and Health Professional Council, Ruth McKean is a leading sports dietician and an advisor to the Scottish Institute of Sport. She is also a former Scottish National 5,000m champion.

This spring, she joins us as one of the ASICS PRO Team, working with our five ASICS Target 26.2 spring marathon contenders as they look ahead to the Paris Marathon on April 15.

Read the whole forum debate.

Pick up more training tips and exclusive spring marathon podcasts at our ASICS Target 26.2 hub.

Q. Should I eat breakfast before my marathon? When I do my long runs I tend to have a big pasta meal the night before but then I just get up and go running.

I did that today on my 22-mile training run. Then I had a gel at 10 miles and another half at 17 miles. On marathon day I obviously can't just run from the front door and there will be hanging about and travelling to the start etc.  I find if I eat a couple of hours before a run I can end up with stitch.  Do you have any tips? Should I skip breakfast, or eat something small and easily to digest, like a banana?

Also, in terms of water, I tend just to drink from my own water bottle and don't bother with water stations at races. Could I perform better if I took on more liquid? I'm running the Brighton Marathon. Wonder Woman

A.  I would most definitely eat breakfast before a marathon. If you struggle with volume the morning of the race then you should ensure you have eaten sufficient carbs in the days or certainly the day before the marathon, and a larger meal before bed, which you are currently doing.

The morning of the marathon some people have to get up extra early to eat (as much as four hours before) and then have something like a banana or sports drink as a snack 1-2 hours before the race. Or sip sports drink up to the start but don’t overdo these.  

If this isn’t possible, try foods that will be quickly absorbed and leave your stomach quickly, like a liquid meal replacement such as Slim Fast drink with a gel. If you can manage the meal replacement with perhaps one slice of white bread with jam, cut off the crusts, nibble on this and make sure you chew the food well. If you chew food well, you’ll start digesting it in your mouth (you can only start digesting carbs in the mouth this cannot happen for fats or protein).

Avoid fruit juice, milk, carbonated soft drinks such as lemonade and if you’re going to use sports drinks, sip and do not gulp. In summary, a low fat (quicker to digest) and light in volume fuel is your best bet. I do think you’ll run better by eating breakfast, as this will top up carbs before the race. Try this a few time in practice races before the actual marathon.

Q. After a long run or race, I really struggle to eat anything for the rest of the day. I've tried fruit, quinoa, veggies, bread or just sticking with protein, but they all make me want to throw up. I've also tried soya chocolate milk but it's still making me feel sick.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Also, could you give an example of a typical diet for the days leading up to a marathon? Emmy_bug

A. Have you tried just fluid, such as a full sugar diluted juice or even a sports drink until you feel you can eat? Just sip on this for the first hour and make sure the temperature of this drink is appealing to you.

Another tip that works for many is to present your food in really small portions. Try a sandwich with the crusts cut off, cut into small bite-sized chunks or a small pot of yoghurt with half a banana chopped into it, then try and build up to eating some toast.

A typical diet in the days leading up to a marathon would be high in carbs, low in fat (so the fat does not displace the carbs as fats and too much protein can fill you up). Here is an example:

Breakfast: Two cups of cereal with semi or skimmed milk with piece of fruit and two slices of toast with jam or honey and glass of fruit juice.

Snacks: One mid-morning, one mid afternoon and one before bed. Choose from:

-       500ml smoothie and cereal bar

-       Cereal bar and a large banana and a pot of low fat yogurt

-       Bowl of cereal

-       Toast/crumpets/English muffins with sugar spreads

Lunch: Baked beans in a jacket potato, a glass of fruit juice and a cup of canned fruit with a yoghurt.

Evening meal: Pasta or rice based meal with a low fat sauce and small amount of meat, fish or nuts if you wish. If carb needs are even more, sip on a sugar containing diluting juice.

You should be aiming at 10 grams of carbs per kilogram of your body mass. Use these sorts of foods and food labels to work this out. You’ll need to practise this to see if carb loading works for you.

If you’re carrying extra weight, reduce this to eight grams of carbs per kilogram of body mass. So if you weigh 65kg, you would aim for around 520g for the three days before a race over 18 miles. 

However, if you have unstable diabetes, issues with fats in your bloods or if you already have a diet which is already very high in carbs, then you wouldn’t need or be recommended to do this.  

Q. I’m a T2 diabetic (controlled by Metformin/exercise) and have that old dilemma about the dietary requirements of a distance runner (I’m doing the D33 Ultra in Aberdeen tomorrow) and balancing those needs with my diabetes, which often results in conflicting advice.

My problem is that I find the thought of food or gels repellent the further I run, yet I know I need to take on fuel to stave off keytoacidosis (and afterwards I sometimes feel nausea for a couple hours). I suspect you might not have experience with diabetic running directly, but do you know of any surveys or any researchers who have looked into dietary balance and distance running for T2 diabetics. There are plenty for T1 but they assume insulin dependence. Any help at all would be appreciated – and I’m happy to be a guinea pig! Tentsmuir Runner

A. As you may have already read, the advice for those with diabetes is similar for those without during these sorts of races. The fact you struggle to eat is no different to some other runners without diabetes (I’m not sure if that makes you feel better or not!).

You are also aware you need to take more care than most non-diabetic runners as you should not run in the presence of hyperglycemia and ketosis. If you’re feeling like you are going low in a race, you need to mention it to someone straight away before you struggle to do this (as I’m sure you know). You may also need to reduce your meds before this sort of exercise and I would not recommend you carb load unless you tightly monitor your blood glucose. Even then the response to increased carbs can be erratic and you should have a word with GP before you do this.

So basically, my advice is that you need to take food on board if want to do these races. These ultra races need carbs to prevent ketosis and you should start feeding glucose regularly from early on in the race. If you do this, this should prime your body to receive glucose and it may be better tolerated and you’ll have less risk of going low.

Have you tried carb/protein mix drinks (High5, Isostar, PowerBar all do these now)? Aim for 200ml per hour or if you struggle with a sports drink a 1:1 ratio of orange breakfast juice with water and add a electrolyte tablet with no flavour (High5 salts tablets have no flavour) or even coke diluted down with a tablet added if needed.

Alongside this, every 15 minutes take a jelly sweet or something like a PowerBar Shot or even regular foods such as Rice Krispie type cereal bars (these seem to be popular amongst some distance runners during long races) and just nibble.

I do feel you are going have to practise eating and drinking until you manage this, otherwise these races are not going to be kind to you. If you let yourself get too dehydrated then this could cause more problems when you start consuming food.

Start with a simple strategy: take on something small every 15 minutes, set your watch to beep if you need to and build on this.

Like you mentioned, the research is often for insulin dependent diabetes and the advice for insulin dependent is also similar to non diabetics. Insulin adjustment before a race is more of a problem for some but they also need to start off with good/normal blood sugar reading and then the aim is to maintain this.

You may have to do a lot of monitoring in some races and long runs to get a feel for how your body reacts, so you can then race with more knowledge of what your blood sugars are doing during these events.

Best of luck next weekend and I hope there is something above which may help.

Tentsmuir Runner: Thanks very much for that advice. I’ve tried to get a straight answer from the GP for years. I often get a, ‘why would you want to run - why not a brisk walk instead?” This is very helpful and greatly appreciated.

Q. Three meals per day used to suffice, but now I’m very hungry between 10-11am, 3-4pm and 9-11pm, even though I've had a decent breakfast, lunch and dinner. I run 40-50 miles per week, usually at 6-7pm in the week, 10am on a Saturday and very early on a Sunday.

What should I be snacking on? I keep getting urges for crisps, cake and other rubbish. It's nearly midday and I've been starving for two hours – please help!

Here is my typical diet:

Breakfast: Three Weetabix

Lunch: Two rounds of sandwiches (tuna or cheese), an apple and a banana

Dinner: Pasta or rice dish with vegetables, once per week with chicken or fish. Richard Bruce 11

A. For athletes running more than 25 miles per week, I have always found they do much better with three meals and 2-3 snacks each day. If you don’t wish to increase calories too much, this just means splitting that lunch time sandwich into two (one for an afternoon snack or to have mid-morning).

However, looking at your food intake, you do seem to eat very little for someone running your weekly mileage and protein is on the low side. Do you include pulses or legumes, such as beans or nuts, in your meals which don’t include fish or chicken? This may be useful to you if you don’t or have a glass of milk with your meal.

I think calcium levels also need to go up, so adding an extra bowl of cereal before bed (it doesn’t need to be large) and at other times of the day try a pot of yoghurt, custard, a glass of milk with your evening meal or rice pudding. This would also increase your protein by around 10g each day with these changes alone (an egg has about 8g of protein in comparison) and increase calcium by about 400mg.

I would snack on fruit and nuts (unsalted nuts would also increase protein and other minerals which are on the low side in your example diet), yoghurts, fruit salad, a glass of milk or a smoothie, a small sandwich (one slice of bread with honey or jam filling and before bed some toast or a bowl of cereal or a bowl of rice pudding with some tinned fruit). 

Add one snack mid-morning and one mid-afternoon and if you can, one before bed. If you struggle with volume, stick with small portions to start with.

I think you would benefit from the above in terms of training gains, as your recovery will also improve. It should also stop you feeling so hungry!

On the next page: Calm a sensitive race stomach, how to maintain your weight during marathon training, tips to shave off a few pounds and much more.


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Discuss this article

Hi-i'm doing VLM again this year (done the last 5 years), i'm 60, followed the run 3+2 programme this year, doing approx. 50 miles per week, as i've been recovering from a pubis synthesis injury the last 12 months, so doing lots of core work etc. My best is 3h 23m  (in 2010 on 80 miles per week) which i'd like to improve upon but i've been struggling with a tightness/cramp in my right hamstring for the last 4 weeks or so. Speaking to various physios. PT's etc. they seem to think it may be a lack of potassium in my diet, i also sweat excessively. My usual diet is:-

Breakfast-Organic porridge 60g (dry) or Mueseli -50g with 20g dry porridge/nuts/cranberries/sunflower/sesame seeds, in total 110g.

Lunch-pot of rice pudding or a couple of pieces of toast with jam before a run and a tuna/ beetroot sandwich afterwards.

Dinner-basically anything but mainly a salad, mostly protein but sometimes with a side of pasta, mainly to keep my weight down, i'm 1.72m tall, 72kgs weight.

Tend to go to bed about mid-night and have 7 hours sleep-i'm semi retired.

I been advised to eat more potessium enriched foods-advocados, bananas, spinach etc. also, i'm aware i have very little fluids during the day and under a 10 mile run, i don't take any with me. Looking at previous comments i don't seem to be eating/drinking enough and of the right variety. I use Nuun tablets  and drink SIS on longer runs and generally eat protein within an hour of finishing. I've stayed away from Lucozade type of drinks as these seem to have a lot of sugar in them.


Posted: 11/04/2012 at 11:35

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